One Woman's Tireless Efforts to Save a Broken World
Described as a “firecracker,” Sonia Sloan, now in her 80s, focuses on supporting nonprofits and people she thinks should hold public office—like Vice President Joe Biden.
Sonia Sloan (right) speaks with Esther Timmeney.
It’s not every fundraising professional who can fill a room by just sending a letter, asking friends to come to lunch. But that’s what Sonia Sloan does. Supporters say they’re not sure why they receive invitations, but it has to be important—“Sonny asked.” “You don’t say no to her,” says David B. Brown, a former board president of Planned Parenthood of Delaware. “Sonia has such a big heart and would never ask anyone to do what she was not willing to do—so people don’t want to disappoint her. She also has the ability to be utterly charming and totally blunt, which most people can’t pull off.” Perhaps that’s why, in her 35 years as a professional and volunteer fundraiser, she’s been able to bring in more than $100 million for Delaware nonprofits such as the Food Bank of Delaware, the Delaware College of Art and Design, and the West End Neighborhood House. “She’s the opposite of haughty and, in many ways, is egoless,” says longtime friend Carol Balick of Wilmington. “Because of her commitment to repair a broken world, she’s a giant in my eyes, though you hug her and feel like you’re hugging a sparrow. Inside, she’s 8 feet tall.”
Friends compare her to a “firecracker” and “hummingbird,” which her son Jonathan understands. He once taped his mother to a dining room chair just so he could clean up after a family meal, he says. Sloan, who will be 87 on April 1, has had a role in founding nonprofits, such as the Wellness Community Inc. (now known as the Cancer Support Community Delaware), Public Allies Delaware (training young adults for careers in the nonprofit world) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (defending individual liberties). For these and other contributions, she was awarded the Order of the First State in 2013, the highest recognition the state can bestow. “The first thing she always contributes is backbone,” says Vice President Joe Biden, who knows her well. Sloan and her husband, Gilbert, worked to elect Biden, at the improbable age of 29, to the U.S. Senate. “She’s given me a lot of confidence,” says Biden. “Sonny was always there to stand by me, even when we disagreed.”
In the nonprofit world, Sonia Sloan has mentored young people, such as Tony Allen, former president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, who is now head of communications for Bank of America’s consumer banking division. “I got to work on many projects because she expanded my network and my professional development,” says Allen. “She knows everybody and yet has a way of going very deep with people.” In recent years, Sloan has undergone operations for thyroid cancer and a difficult procedure to correct an issue with her pancreas. She could relax in her Indian Field home overlooking the Arden woods. But she grows restless at home when concerned about an agency she loves. For the last several months, she has invited friends to learn about Planned Parenthood, to meet its president and CEO Ruth Lytle-Barnaby and have a chance to ask questions over lunch. It’s an agency whose Wilmington offices and clinic Sloan helped build in the 1980s, raising $1.5 million in one of her first forays into nonprofit fundraising as a volunteer board president.
During that period, when the agency found itself without a CEO, Sloan also took charge for seven months. In 2014, she came back on the board to raise the agency’s profile. Planned Parenthood of Delaware had endured months of negative headlines in 2013 when two former nurses complained to legislators and regulators that proper medical procedures were not always followed. As a result, Dr. Timothy Liveright, a former Planned Parenthood doctor, paid a $1,500 fine, surrendered his medical license and received a letter of reprimand from the state. But the incident led to positive reforms, with training and accreditation strengthened, says Sloan. She is proud that the agency has met oversight requirements of the Division of Public Health and wants people to know Planned Parenthood annually serves 11,000 women and men, up and down the state. “I absolutely believe that good reproductive health leads to better families, better parents and better communities,” she says. Lytle-Barnaby understands Sloan’s stance. “She remembers a time when abortion wasn’t legal and knows the suffering that caused,” she says. “Sonia knows that, in Delaware, 60 percent of pregnancies are unintended. Helping people get pregnant when they want to is really what we are here for.” Activism is in Sloan’s DNA. “My grandmother walked with the suffragettes,” she says. “I come from a long line of standing up for what you think.”
Her mother, Rosalia Hillersohn Schorr, was an elementary teacher in Wilmington and Arden. Her father, Sigmund Schorr, was a Hungarian immigrant who, with only an eighth-grade education, became a successful Wilmington haberdasher. Poised, well-spoken and gentlemanly, “Sig,” a passionate liberal and Democrat, also was elected to a term in the Delaware House of Representatives. Sloan’s faith is also a factor in her activism. “As her rabbi, I’ve found that she is one of the few who ‘lives’ her faith,” says Peter Grumbacher, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington. “She is a truly dedicated Reform Jew.” Earning a master’s in microbiology from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Sonia Schorr joined the DuPont Co. in 1952, where she was the first woman on the research staff of Central Research, she says. In the 1950s, she was also a leader of the Young Democrats of Northern New Castle County, where she met her future husband. Married now for close to 58 years, Sonia says Gil has been a partner in everything she has done and that none of her accomplishments would be possible without him. His support was paramount in 1959 when she gave up her DuPont position to be a stay-at-home mother to sons Victor and Jonathan. “I did not regret quitting for one minute,” she says. “If you have children, you owe them a life. And of all that Gil and I have done, we are most proud of our children and their families.”
Throughout their lives, Gil and Sonia have been active in politics. In the late 1960s, Sonia became co-chair of Delaware Citizens for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, hoping to end the Vietnam War. Gil served on the local draft board and was sympathetic to young men seeking the official status of conscientious objector. “It’s hard to separate Gil from Sonny,” says Biden. “They are a matched pair, and their social commitment to a host of causes has been profound.” The couple also supported Gov. Jack Markell before he ran for office. Sonia Sloan raised money in his bid to become state treasurer and was a founding member of the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute, which Markell launched to teach money-management skills. “There’s fun in Delaware politics, in that it’s not difficult here,” says Sloan. “And it’s been a pleasure working with people like Joe [Biden] and Jack Markell—people we believe in.”
For each of Biden’s presidential campaigns, in 1988 and 2008, Sloan volunteered, and, in the most recent bid, rejected offers of a paid position. “I expect campaigns to cost me money, not reward me,” she says. If Biden decides to run in 2016, the Sloans say they will dig into their wallets and support him again. For his part, Biden calls Sonia Sloan a member of his extended family. “She’s reached out to my kids, and my daughter Ashley loves her,” he says. She even helped the Bidens find a Reform rabbi to co-officiate with a priest at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church for Ashley’s marriage to Dr. Howard Krein. An appreciative Biden says, “She’s amazing in what she can accomplish.”